Villanova expects more in revamped Big East
VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) - By the time Villanova knocked off its third top-five team of the season, a few things were clear on the Main Line.
A year after a 19-loss season, the Wildcats were headed back to the NCAA tournament.
And, the good times were back at Villanova - along with a heap of expectations that this season would only be better.
''I can feel that,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said. ''I think there are definitely more expectations this year than last year. I definitely like it better that way. And I think by the end of last year, we were a pretty good team. Not great. But a pretty good team. And the challenge for us to build on where we were last year and get better.''
Wright erased the worst season in Villanova history with a 20-14 mark last season, four wins over Top 25 teams and a surprising berth in the NCAA tournament. That the season ended with 78-71 loss to North Carolina in the second round wasn't as much a disappointment as it was the first step toward rebuilding the program into regular March contenders.
The Wildcats knocked off No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse in the same week. They beat nationally-ranked Marquette a month later and finished the regular season with a win over No. 5 Georgetown, snapping the Hoyas' 11-game winning streak.
Based on those results, and a strong returning core, the Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in the revamped Big East.
''That old Big East was the greatest for college basketball, ever,'' Wright said. ''It just won't be the same. Are we better? No. Are we worse? No. It's just different. But I love where we are.''
Here are five things to watch for starting with Villanova's season opener Nov. 8 vs. Lafayette:
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: The Wildcats are in a bit of a big-man bind with the loss of Mouphtaou Yarou. That means Wright will rely heavily on a four-guard lineup, much like he did during Villanova's ascent into reawakened power, to stem the loss of a true big man. The Wildcats could play JayVaughn Pinkston at center, but will likely need Daniel Ochefu to step up and fill the center spot. Under Wright, the Wildcats haven't needed much out of their centers, just consistent rebounding and a need to stay out of foul trouble. The Wildcats are thin in the frontcourt and are counting on the guards to carry them.
ENNIS INJURED: The lack of a true center and reliable scoring option underneath was further accentuated when the Wildcats lost shooting guard Dylan Ennis to a broken right hand. Ennis, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, sat out last season after a transfer from Rice. Wright had raved about what he saw out of Ennis, and was being counted on to spell starting guard Ryan Arcidiacono, if not also share a spot with him in the backcourt. Ennis will miss about a month, likely keeping him out of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas where games against USC, and potentially Kansas, await.
UPSET CITY: Villanova fans sure remember how much fun it was to storm the Wells Fargo Center court after those big wins over Louisville and Syracuse, then followed with the upset over the Hoyas. Those wins built confidence and a sturdy tournament resume. The best part? The Wildcats only had to play Georgetown and Syracuse once in the regular season because of the old, bloated Big East schedule. The Wildcats will play every conference team twice this season, making it seem unlikely for any team to go out and pull season sweeps on any Top 25 teams on the schedule. But with only 10 teams, beating teams like DePaul and Seton Hall aren't going to help out the RPI and could make even a 20-win season tough to crack the NCAA tournament field.
TOP OF THE ARCH: Arcidiacono was named to the Big East rookie team and showed flashes at times of what made Wright confident enough to start him as a freshman. He topped the 20-point mark 10 times, including a 32-point game against St. John's and the tying 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in regulation in the win over the Orange. He had enough big moments to earn a spot on the preseason All-Big East second team. If he wants to get to the first team, and keep the Wildcats in the NCAA hunt, the player known as Arch has to become a more consistent scorer. Those big games were often followed by single-digit scoring efforts and he turned the ball over nearly three times a game, which could the Wildcats more than his scoring could help.
FIVE YEARS: Has it really been five seasons since Wright and All-American Scottie Reynolds led the Wildcats to the Final Four? That amazing season turned out to be the peak of a stellar five-year run under Wright that always had the Wildcats in the thick of conference championships, No. 1 rankings, and a threat to go deep each March. The Wildcats haven't been the same since losing in Detroit, and there's no sign they'll become that good again. But at least the Wildcats are in the tournament again and seem to have stabilized after the woeful 2011-12 season.